Saturday, September 20, 2014
Halloween 2014: September 20
King Kong (1933)
“King Kong” is one of the most iconic films ever created. The idea of a giant gorilla scaling a tall building with a beautiful woman in hand has become one of the most instantly recognizable images in pop culture history. The story – of an expedition to the ominously named Skull Island, of Kong’s fascination with Ann Darrow, of his capture and escape in New York City – are so well-known that there’s no need to summarize it. That’s why people keep trying to reboot the character. Even if the original movie is not that widely watched today, King Kong is still world-famous. Most impressively, Kong is a complete American original, emerging from the mind of Merian C. Cooper.
Part of “King Kong’s” undying appeal lies in the pulpiness of the material. The film is well in line with the rip-roaring adventures that lined the low budget action films and pulp magazines of the day. The characters are in this mold. Carl Denham is the adventurer filmmaker, telling stories of filming charging rhinos and constantly building up his own legend. Jack Driscoll, the heroic lead, is probably the least-well defined character in the film. He’s a tough sailor of few words who survives his encounters with the monsters of Skull Island through his steely determination to survive. Fay Wray’s Ann Darrow has an interesting arc. She is more-or-less living the dream. She was a poor girl scooped out of a woman’s shelter by a big-shot director and sent on a crazy adventure. On that adventure, she meets the man of her dreams in the prototypically heroic Jack. There’s very little reason for Jack and Ann to develop romantic feelings. It’s a plot development born out of the needs of the script. It’s difficult to say that “Kong” intentionally works in archetypes because the film helped defined those archetypes. Even the map that leads the expedition to Skull Island reminds one of legends of mysteriously discovered treasure maps.
Looking back on it, you might be reluctant to consider “King Kong” a horror film. It probably better belongs to the lost world fantasy or jungle adventure genres. This latest rewatch confirmed to me that “Kong” is indeed a horror film. Take for example the scenes where the sailors are rafting across a foggy lake. Only seen as a black shape, rising out of the water, is a brontosaurus, looking more like a sea serpent then a sauropod dinosaur. The brontosaur wrecks the raft, tossing the men’s bodies through the air. Despite being a plant eater, the dinosaur still chases a man up a tree and eats him. This is dark, violent, thrilling stuff. Kong himself could accurately be described as a monster. He’s certainly a remorseless killer. Most of the expedition crew is taken out when Kong shakes them off a log into a deep canyon. (If the notorious spider pit scene hadn’t been excised, there wouldn’t be any debate about “Kong’s” horror bonafides.) The great gorilla’s rampage through the native village is one of the most thrilling sequences in the film. He stomps on people, crushing them under tossed rubble, chews them up in his mouth. Kong may be the film’s hero in an odd sense but his wanton destruction certainly makes him monstrous.
Merian C. Cooper and his co-creators seem to see the film as squarely an action/horror/tragedy. The film is ultimately too important to watch only through these eyes. Through its simple story, “King Kong” tackles numerous, deeper themes. As Tarantino pointed out, Kong is taken from his native land, put in chains, brought across the ocean, and put up on stage for display. Was the film intentionally invoking images of slavery? Is Kong’s rampage through New York a righteous revenge for his capture? Or is it an inflammatory message of letting savages roam around a modern city? The film’s racial context can be hard to read, especially since the Skull Island natives unfortunately fit the then-stereotypes about black people and Africans. I doubt Cooper was intentionally playing with these ideas. However, “Kong” is undoubtedly a story of imperialism and the exploitation of nature by man. Man ventures into a strange world where he doesn’t belong, brings the King of that world back to America, and pays the price for it. This is most notable in the scene where the explorers cruelly shoot an unconscious stegosaurus to death. Because Kong is a tragic figure too, the film becomes about his exploitation as well. Denham is wrong. It wasn’t the airplanes or Beauty that killed the Beast. It was his selfish and thoughtless degradation of an innocent creature that killed Kong.
Dawn of the Dead (2003)
We horror fans were pretty excited when the zombie boom of the early 2000s started. Ironically, zombies have become the horror fad that wouldn’t die. After a decade of diminished returns, the undead sub-genre is in sad shape. George Romero’s original zombie flicks were full of social commentary, when they weren’t outright satirical. Now, the genre is an escapist fantasy for would-be survivalists. I fear most modern zombie nuts would relate far more to the redneck good ol’ boys shooting the undead for fun in the original “Dawn of the Dead” then George himself. Fans like this miss the point. We, the viewers, aren’t Roger and Peter, the bad ass zombie slayers. We, the viewers, are the zombies. I blame video games and “The Walking Dead.” Anyway, I’m rambling. Let’s revisit the remake of “Dawn of the Dead,” the movie that truly launched the zombie boom, in a modern world suffering from both zombie and Zack Snyder fatigue.
Remaking “Dawn of the Dead” was a fairly terrible idea. The original is the high-water mark of the entire genre and has been widely imitated over the years. Smartly, the movie is a fairly loose remake, keeping the zombies, the mall, a few choice lines, and nothing else. The zombie apocalypse strikes and a group of disparate folks make their way to a shopping mall. Once inside, they fight among themselves, find ways to pass the time, and occasionally blast some zombies. In time, they realize sitting around a mall is not surviving and plan an escape into the zombie-infested world.
now proven blockbuster maker James Gunn penned the script. Time has made it clear that Gunn knows his stuff. At the time, his writing skills were still unproven. Let’s get two facts out of the way: “Dawn of the Dead ‘04” isn’t bad. “Dawn of the Dead ‘04” still has a lot of stupid stuff in it. The stupidest thing? Those fucking running zombies. It trades the slow, shambling dread of the original for shrieking, MTV-style jump scares. The zombies have amber eyes, bust their heads through doors, scream, tumble, and run. It’s obnoxious. Also stupid: The fucking zombie baby. What would happen to a pregnant woman if she got bitten is a question worth answering. Answering it with a screaming, undead infant is not the right answer. The remake also ejects most of Romero’s social commentary and satire, leaving the material bankrupt on anything but the most superficial level.
Also unproven at the time was director and owl enthusiast Zack Snyder. “Dawn of the Dead” is more-or-less Snyder’s entire career in close-up. It’s an intense action movie with some visual panache but is completely dead and soulless inside. Many of the filmmaker’s future Snyder-ism are on display here. His love of ramping, things going real slow and then real fast, is not as oppressive as it would be in the future. It’s still there, mostly employed in close-ups of cocking guns. The color palette is washed-out and grimy yet also slick and commercial. The pounding music goes a long way towards draining tension and foreshadows potential scares. It’s still probably Snyder’s best film, as he even holds off on his juvenile approach to violence, at least until the very end when the chainsaws and the improbable aiming skills come up.
Down with the Sickness,” the mall dwellers find creative ways to pass the time. Ving Rhames’ cop plays chess with the gun shop owner across the street. The budding teen couple watches old sitcoms together. Most amusingly, the group shoot zombie celebrity look-a-likes. There are a few chuckle-worthy one-liners throughout the film, like one of the guys commenting on the elevator music. Considering everything else Snyder has done has been incredibly self-serious and humorless, I’m willing to give Gunn credit for all the jokes.
The best thing “Dawn of the Dead” has going for it is a fairly likable cast of characters. Ving Rhames gives one of his best performances in recent memory as Kenneth, the hard former cop who slightly rediscovers his will to live. Sarah Polley’s Ana doesn’t have much of an arc but Polley remains a winning screen presence. Ty Burrell’s Steve is probably meant to be an asshole but the actor’s sharp comedic skills make the character memorable. Veteran character actors like Lindy Booth and Matt Frewer do their thing, making bit roles likable. The scene of the cast sitting around and discussing past jobs is one of the most touching in the whole film. It’s impressive that one of the best characters in the movie is almost never heard. That would be Andy, the lovable gun shop owner across the street. The cast is still too large and a number of characters are horribly underwritten. Monica is blonde and slutty, Tucker wears a trucker’s hat, Norma is a lady trucker, and Glen is gay and weird. Considering how little most these characters contribute to the film, they could have been cut without much problem.
Tales from the Crypt: Loved to Death
I’m being entirely sincere when I say I’ve missed “Tales from the Crypt” in the last ten and a half months. From the fun house opening sequence to the greeting of the Crypt Keeper’s cheesy one-liners, the show hits the horror nerd sweet spot for me. The familiar can be comforting. The show’s scripts always follow familiar story beats, usually involving wrongdoers being punished ironically for their crimes. In “Loved to Death,” a lonely nerd named Edward, an unsuccessful screenwriter, lusts after his statuesque female neighbor. She either ignores him out right or is actively hostile to him. Desperate for her attention, the guy goes to the creepy, voyeuristic landlord who sells him a love potion. As it always does, this backfires spectacularly. Edward learns that you can get too much of a good thing as Miranda’s suddenly smothering affection drives him nuts.
The horrific content in “Loved to Death” is fairly minor. There is some suggestion that the creepy landlord played by David Hemmings might be Satanic in nature. The plot leads to murder, as it so often does in “Tales,” with the would-be killer’s plot backfiring. The too on-the-nose ending has the killer being met in the afterlife by his obsessive lover, who killed herself after he died. Only now, she’s disturbingly needy and brutally deformed. It’s a mean-spirited ending for sure. “Loved to Death” is a weaker episode, probably most of note for its HBO-allowed sexual content. The always game Mariel Hemingway stripes her clothes off and spends most of the half-hour crawling over Andrew McCarthy. As is usually the case with the weaker “Crypt” episodes, the Crypt Keeper’s pun-filled host segments are more entertaining then the episode. [5/10]
So Weird: Medium
Rewatching “So Weird” last year for the first time since it originally aired on the Disney Channel a decade ago, I found I had no memory of some episodes while others stuck with me vividly. “Medium,” the season two premiere, is definitely one I remembered. Its maybe the first time my young brain saw skepticism treated in a positive light. The story begins with Fiona, the paranormal-obsessed teen daughter of on-the-comeback pop star Molly Philips, visiting a spiritualist in hopes of getting in contact with her dead dad. While at the séance, one of the visitors to the circle steps up, revealing the medium as a fraud. Intrigued, Fi tracks down the debunker who turns out to be a real medium, driven to expose the fakes after loosing his own powers.
Like many episodes of “So Weird,” “Medium” has a strong emotional backbone that is hampered by the constraints of half-hour kid’s television. Fiona’s opening monologue expresses skepticism of spiritualism while also saying that it’s natural for those who mourn to want a second chance with their lost loved ones. Fi’s tearful cries for her father during the séance are genuinely touching. The episode ends with a touching conversation between Fi and Molly, where the mother talks about how she still suffers from her late husband’s loss. Cara DeLizia and MacKenzie Philips once again do excellent work.
Andrew Wheeler is good as the debunker. However, the character revealing his true powers to Fiona after a few minutes of talking is contrived. Molly’s memories of her husband being illustrated with flashbacks is a clumsy device. Fi’s brother Jack, played by the usually excellent Patrick Levis, has a small role in this episode, with his most interesting actions happening off-screen. Still, “Medium” is a good example of how savvier andmore mature “So Weird” was compared to the other stuff on the Disney Channel at the time, as the episode packs some strong emotion within its brief framework. [7/10]